And so I follow up a couple of short works with another short one – “A Month in the Country” by J.L. Carr, which clocks in at just 93 pages! I picked this up at the local Oxfam bookshop a while back, after hearing it highly recommended by Alex – and she wasn’t wrong!

My Penguin Decades edition with lovely rose cover

My Penguin Decades edition with lovely rose cover

“A Month in the Country” is probably J.L. Carr’s most famous work and it is set just after the First World War. Tom Birkin is a survivor – shell-shocked, with a twitchy face, but still alive. His marriage has collapsed and the book opens with his arriving in the northern town of Oxgodby by train in the pouring rain to work for a month restoring a church wall reputed to have hidden piece of religious art. Also working locally is another veteran, Moon, who is digging for a lost excommunicated ancestor of the same local dignitary who has left instructions in her Will for both of these searches to take place. After initial strangeness, Tom starts to fit in with the locals, working at his restoration, attending chapel meetings and falling in love. As the book goes on, the English summer and the countryside have a healing effect on him – but how will the archaeology end?

For a short book, this is amazingly packed and just proves that you don’t have to write an epic the length of “War and Peace” to tell a memorable tale and make a few points while you’re doing so! It’s an odd book, in a way. The writing begins prosaically enough, and some of the sections verge on the educational, when Birkin/Carr is telling  us about some ecclesiastical aspect. Yet as the book progresses, and Tom begins to settle and heal, the writing becomes more beautiful and evocative, conjuring up visions of long, hot days in the English countryside.

“Am I making too much of this? Perhaps. But there are times when man and earth are one, when the pulse of living beats strong, when life is brimming with promise and the future stretches confidently ahead like that road to the hills. Well, I was young…”

And the writing is remarkably clever too. Despite this being such a compressed book, it never feels short or as if anything is missing. We learn about Tom’s wife, her unfaithfulness, the War, Moon’s real nature, and many other things all in very short paragraphs and phrases, but this is so skilfully done that we feel we know the whole story. Instead of a blow-by-blow account, we get what you might call the bullet points, but so beautifully presented that it doesn’t feel like it. There is a delicacy in the storytelling, as if it is enough to just hint about things and we will know all we need to. This is particularly effective when Tom is thinking of the War – less is more, as they say.

The romance, such as it is, is subtly suggested and we discreetly consider the state of Alice Keach’s married life – as cold and strange and empty as the house she inhabits with her vicar husband. There is a sense of the long-gone past in the researches of Birkin and Moon, and also a real sense of the horror through which they’ve lived. And Birkin’s relationship with the unknown artist who created the lost work is intriguingly suggested, and has something to do with his healing process.

sittingcarr

They say comparisons are odious, but I could help but constantly thinking back to my re-read of “Hotel du Lac” and thinking how much more depth there was in this book of much the same length. “A Month in the Country” is an elegiac masterpiece, with characters who are masterfully sketched and jump off the page, a location and landscape which is fully alive, and a tale told which gives away much more than appears at first sight. This was a remarkable, moving and lovely book and I’m glad Alex’s review pointed me in its direction!